Out of Gas

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, January 29, 2008 12:32 PM

There it was last night, for all the world to see: A presidency running on empty.

In his final State of the Union address, President Bush had almost nothing to say. Certainly nothing new and significant. Nothing remotely memorable.

It's a safe bet that nothing he said last night will amount to much. Nothing he said will help bring the country together, or undo the damage he has done to American interests abroad. Nothing he said will help him win back the trust or support of the American people, both which he lost a long time ago.

On the traditional State of the Union litany of subjects, his repetition of familiar and sometimes delusional talking points conveyed a clear, though unintended message: That those looking for meaningful progress on the key issues facing our nation and our world today will have to wait for the next president.

In a live chat right after the speech, Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser wrote: "We have a president who is out of public support (32 percent approval), out of ideas and out of gas. It is fascinating to me how difficult it is for politicians (and journalists too, to be fair) to say publicly what so many of them readily say among themselves now: this is a failed presidency, one of the most unsuccessful in American history probably. Republicans in Congress say this to each other, but tonight they jump up an applaud like cheerleaders for their team.

"Several who have posted questions noted, as I did, the large number of verbal gaffes Bush made tonight -- little things, missed words, mispronunciations and such. It made you wonder about his own level of interest in the speech, somehow."

William Neikirk writes in the Chicago Tribune: "The speech was a notable departure in how little he proposed -- no new programs like space travel to Mars or calls for great sacrifice -- as though he was tacitly conceding that the hourglass of his presidency was emptying rapidly.

"He appeared to relish the role of national cheerleader, saying that while the economy is slowing, 'in the long run, Americans can be confident about their economic growth.'

"Yet those words might fall short in restoring even a semblance of the political power he once held. A president's voice is his most powerful tool, but the power is lost if people are no longer listening. 'The country wants to get past this administration,' said presidential scholar Robert Dallek."

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "Making his seventh and final State of the Union address, President Bush proposed a short list of initiatives Monday that more than anything else underscored the White House's growing realization that his biggest political opponents now are time and an electorate already looking beyond him.

"This address lacked the soaring ambitions of Mr. Bush's previous speeches, though it had its rhetorical flourishes. He invoked the 'miracle of America' but for the most part flatly recited familiar ideas -- cutting taxes, fighting terrorists, the war in Iraq -- rather than bold new ones. Nothing he proposed Monday is likely to redefine how history judges his presidency."

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "President Bush had a simple underlying message in his final State of the Union speech Monday night. I'm still here.

"A businesslike manner and crisp delivery were designed to convey the sense of a man who remains on the job and retains some of the considerable tools of the office even though his presidency has been eclipsed by a fierce race to succeed him -- a race that has been largely unfriendly toward his tenure."

But Page writes that Bush's proposals "were downsized from the big promises he unveiled in previous years and his rhetoric was more pragmatic than soaring. There were no vows this time like the one in 2005 to remake Social Security; instead, he called on members of Congress to come up with a solution to an impending fiscal crunch for the retirement program and Medicare. The 2006 goal of seeking 'the end of tyranny in our world' was out; the task of passing trade deals with Colombia and Panama was in. . . .

"Woven through the speech was Bush's call to 'trust' in the American people -- to 'trust people with their own money' by cutting taxes, to restore 'trust in their government' by curbing earmarks, to 'trust American workers to compete with anyone in the world' by approving trade deals, to 'trust in the creative genius of American researchers and entrepreneurs' to develop new energy sources, to 'trust students to learn if given the opportunity.' He used some version of the word 'trust' 19 times.

"Americans weren't necessarily ready to return the favor, though. A Gallup Poll last September found 27% trusted Bush to do the right thing in Iraq; 35% trusted congressional Democrats; and 28% trusted neither."

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "For a president who has always favored boldness, it amounts to a dramatic shift. . . .

"The full-throttle intensity of the presidential campaign framed Bush's speech and underscored his challenge at this point. The address to Congress came two days after a Democratic primary in South Carolina and just 10 hours before polls were to open in Florida. No president has delivered a State of the Union with the campaign to succeed him so far along.

"'He's totally eclipsed,' said Elaine Kamarck, who was a senior adviser to former vice president Al Gore. 'Nothing he says is going to be important for anything that happens in the next 12 months. The speech is a nonevent.'"

John Dickerson writes for Slate: "Part of the president's goal was to remind Congress and the American people that he's still relevant, but other than the executive orders he promised and the Middle East peace initiative he committed himself to, he didn't do anything in his speech to prove that relevance. He extended no great hand to the opposition, and the laundry list of programs he ticked off--which he knows mostly won't get passed in an election year--look only like an attempt to box in Democrats by raising expectations about what they can achieve."

Jay Carney blogs for Time that "the agenda he outlined had a musty whiff to it; it was so full of hardy perennials, of ideas whose time had come and long since gone, that an observer was left wondering if some speechwriter's assistant mistakenly loaded the wrong text into the teleprompter -- with the unexpected result that Bush delivered the whole thing without ever noticing that the words he spoke had been spoken (by him) before, and were oddly detached from both current events and current attitudes."

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "His handlers have been saying for months that President Bush intends to 'sprint to the finish.' Deep down, even those same true believers know the only honest verb is 'limp.' . . .

"Some Presidents are gone but not forgotten; Bush isn't gone, but in a political sense is already forgotten.

"His approval ratings are roughly half what they were at his first State of the Union address, about one-third of their post-9/11 peak. Republicans love his fund-raising prowess, but most candidates seldom mention him. 'Nobody's paying attention to him anymore,' said a veteran of his 2000 presidential campaign.

"His ambitious laundry list of policy initiatives, mostly repackaged old standards, is an illusion.

"'I don't think much is doable,' one Bush political ally ventures. 'He'll win on Iraq and spending, but I don't see anything else he can get done.'

"The real purpose of this valedictory was legacy, not legislation."

Iraq Watch

Michael Abramowitz and Dan Eggen write in The Washington Post: "Appearing before Congress for his seventh and last State of the Union address, Bush claimed vindication for his controversial decision a year ago to send a 'surge' of about 30,000 additional troops to Iraq. . . .

"'Some may deny the surge is working,' Bush said, 'but among the terrorists there is no doubt. Al-Qaeda is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated.'"

Bryan Bender writes in the Boston Globe: "President Bush portrayed the bloody five-year war in Iraq last night as finally turning a corner, citing a dramatic reduction in attacks since he dispatched an additional 30,000 US troops last January and vowing to 'sustain and build on the gains we made in 2007' during his last year in office. . . .

"But several military specialists warned that many of the security improvements in Iraq have resulted from the work of a mix of local militias and armed citizens groups that are funded by the United States but beyond the control of the Iraqi government.

"Unless these groups are quickly folded into the Iraqi security forces or are provided other gainful employment, there are few guarantees that they will not face off with each other when the American security commitment is reduced and spark another round of civil war, the specialists said."

Earmark Watch

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "President Bush has never shown much distaste for Congressional pork.

"But in his last year in office, with his party out of power on Capitol Hill, he declared Monday that he had had enough.

"In the last seven years he has signed spending bills containing about 55,000 earmarks worth more than $100 billion for projects like a new lane for a local road, a new facade for a town landmark or a weapons contract for a company that happened to be a big donor to an influential lawmaker. . . .

"Mr. Bush was notably silent on the subject until after his fellow Republicans lost control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. And, now that his power has waned, his threats are almost certain not to matter."

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "An executive order will tell federal agencies to disregard pet projects that are designated in reports that accompany spending laws but lack the force of law. And Bush promised to veto spending bills that do not cut the number and cost of such earmarks in half.

"But neither move would take effect until fiscal 2009, which begins in October. If as expected, Democratic leaders hold back spending bills this fall in the hope that a Democratic president will be in office next year, Bush may never get a chance to make good on his promise."

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "Government-spending watchdogs yesterday swiftly condemned President Bush's announcement of a new initiative against congressional earmarking of funds for pet projects, saying that the White House's plan was empty rhetoric because it will not kick in until Bush is about to leave office.

"'He had an opportunity to really take a stand . . . and we're disappointed that he didn't take that opportunity,' said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers of Common Sense. 'Unfortunately, this is the standard Washington game where you do something to make it appear like you are making a difference, whereas in reality you're not doing anything.'"

Fact Check

"The Iraqis launched a surge of their own," Bush said, "and today, this grass-roots surge includes more than 80,000 Iraqi citizens who are fighting the terrorists."

But Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "The citizens Bush mentioned are actually Sunni neighborhood-watch groups that have been hired by the U.S. military for $300 a month. Military officials said they are unsure what will happen when these 'citizens' are no longer paid.

"Indeed, Sunni officials say many Sunnis would like to join the Iraqi military or police forces but are prevented from doing so by the Shiite-led government. Meanwhile, the leader of Iraq's largest Shiite party in December criticized the groups for not submitting to government authority.

"There is also some uncertainty about the number of Iraqis involved in the effort."

Here's one of Bush's most quotable quotes from last night: "Today, because of the progress just described, we are implementing a policy of 'return on success,' and the surge forces we sent to Iraq are beginning to come home."

But Alex Koppelman blogs for Salon that, as he reported in September, "the withdrawal of these forces isn't tied to success in the way the president pretends. In fact, he had little choice but to begin these drawdowns, and his top generals -- including Gen. David Petraeus -- have not made a secret of that."

And on the economy: "Some in Washington argue that letting tax relief expire is not a tax increase," Bush said. "Try explaining that to 116 million American taxpayers who would see their taxes rise by an average of $1,800. . . . This budget will keep America on track for a surplus in 2012."

The Post's Steve Mufson and Jonathan Weisman write: "Bush makes the potential expiration of his tax cuts sound like a big deal for the average American, but his estimate of the financial impact is skewed because the cuts have disproportionately helped the very richest citizens. That fact boosts the average cost of reinstating the taxes, a circumstance that doesn't reflect what the typical household might experience.

"Here's another way of looking at it: the median American household will pay roughly $828 more in taxes in 2011 if the Bush tax cuts expire, according to the Tax Policy Center, a non-ideological think tank venture. The richest 1 percent of American households, in contrast, would have to pay an extra $64,154 a year when the tax cuts expire.

"With the economy slowing, the Congressional Budget Office this month projected that the federal budget deficit would actually grow worse this year, not better. In predicting that a surplus will return in 2012, moreover, Bush is not counting the long-term cost of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, nor is he taking into consideration likely congressional action to mitigate the expansion of the alternative minimum tax, which increasingly threatens the middle class."

The Scene

Michael Kranish and Susan Milligan write in the Boston Globe: "The House chamber held much less of the excitement and tension that marked previous State of the Union addresses.

"Instead, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers seemed already to have moved on from Bush's presidency, gossiping among themselves about the presidential race."

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "Democrats never seemed so elated about the prospect of a major speech by President Bush. Or of having it finished.

"'I think everybody is ready to turn the page,' said Representative Mark Udall, Democratic of Colorado, as he and his colleagues poured out of Mr. Bush's last State of the Union address. . . .

"Democrats sat quietly while Republicans cheered many of the president's applause lines, no longer afraid of seeming to slight Mr. Bush. They snickered at some points and some called aloud for a return of troops from Iraq. 'Bring them home, bring them home,' they chanted.

"Even Republicans acknowledged the sense that an era was ending with Mr. Bush, still low in the polls and running out of time, stepping up to the teleprompters in the House one last time. One Senate ally said he sensed that the White House was going through the motions."

Tom Shales writes in The Washington Post: "However lackluster the speech, it was vigorously delivered. On CBS afterward, Katie Couric said the president appeared 'almost giddy at times.' . . .

"[M]ost of the network big shots, who'd been invited to a White House get-together with the president earlier in the day, remarked on his stubbornly jovial spirits."

Alessandra Stanley writes in the New York Times: "There was nothing mournful or valedictory about Mr. Bush's delivery of his seventh State of the Union address, a speech that acknowledged, however briefly, that the economy is in trouble. Mr. Bush, looking fresh and rested, made a point of sounding good-humored as he delivered less-than-glowing news."

Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "The nation is splintered over the war in Iraq, cleaved by ruthless partisan politics, bubbling with economic fear and mired in debate over virtually all of the issues Mr. Bush faced in 2002. And the best Mr. Bush could offer was a call to individual empowerment -- a noble idea, but in Mr. Bush's hands just another excuse to abdicate government responsibility.

"Monday night's address made us think what a different speech it might have been if Mr. Bush had capitalized on the unity that followed the 9/11 attacks to draw the nation together, rather than to arrogate ever more power and launch his misadventure in Iraq. How different it might have been if Mr. Bush meant what he said about compassionate conservatism or even followed the fiscal discipline of old-fashioned conservatism. How different if he had made a real effort to reach for the bipartisanship he promised in 2002 and so many times since."

The Washington Post editorial board writes that "the president's advisers said he had decided to offer a forward-looking program, not a reflective valedictory -- a wise choice, because an honest assessment of the past seven years would have been a tale of opportunities lost and enterprises bungled."

But The Post didn't think much of what Bush did talk about, either. For instance: "Mr. Bush endorsed the need for a new international agreement on climate change. But the greatest disappointment of the night was his failure to commit to working with Congress on legislation to create a mandatory carbon emissions reduction system in the United States -- without which no international accord will be possible. Like so much else, that, it seems, will have to wait for another president."

Fred Kaplan writes for Slate: "The sad thing about President George W. Bush's eighth and final State of the Union address is that he seems to have learned so little about the crises in which he's immersed his nation so deeply. . . .

"The president, once more, depicted the complex conflicts of our time as one-dimensional struggles between the forces of light and darkness. . . .

"The question comes to mind, as it has come to mind in all of these speeches when Bush recites this argument: Does he believe what he's saying? Does he believe that the violent battles for power in these lands really come down to freedom vs. tyranny? If so, no wonder this government has had such a hard time getting a handle on these dangers, much less trying to engage them. . . .

"Maybe the president believes that saying something makes it close to true. (Some of his former aides have told me they suspect this is the case.)"

Andrew Stephen writes for the New Statesman: "I glanced up at my Bush Countdown Clock the moment Bush started speaking, and it indicated a brutal reality: there were still 357 days, two hours, 50 minutes and 8.2 seconds to go before Hillary, Obama or one of their Republican rivals moves into the White House to replace the most disastrous US president in modern history. . . .

"Embattled as he now is in his bunker and with fewer and fewer allies remaining to sustain his morale, even Bush himself now seems to have virtually given up hope for his own presidency. I suspect that he has now reached the stage where he, just as much as the rest of us, can't wait for those 357 days to pass and for the 44th president to move into the White House and take charge. Goodnight, Mr President."

The White House press office is calling attention to this morning's Wall Street Journal editorial and its assertion that "even with only a year left, the Bush Presidency is far from over. With his low approval rating and a Democratic Congress, Mr. Bush's final State of the Union last night reflected his limited ability to shape legislation. But even a lame duck President has more power to influence events than anyone else on the planet."

More Reaction

Charles Kupchan writes for the Council on Foreign Relations: "President Bush's State of the Union was noteworthy for not being particularly noteworthy. ...

"[T]he United States faces a long list of pressing challenges around the globe, many of which urgently require new and innovative policy approaches. After tonight's speech, it appears such new approaches will have to await the next president."

Peter Beinart writes for the Council on Foreign Relations: "Bush was . . . . right to stress America's commitment to global liberty, a theme espoused by virtually every president since Wilson. But by providing no conceptual framework except democracy-promotion, he found himself with no language for discussing U.S. policy toward authoritarian powers that we cannot realistically isolate. It is an odd State of the Union speech that mentions Sudan, Zimbabwe, Belarus, and Burma, but ignores Russia and China. But that is the natural result of Bush's ideological straitjacket. If democracy promotion is America's sole global foreign policy framework, countries weak enough to pressure are worth discussing. Countries too powerful to pressure, by contrast, must be ignored lest they expose the limitations of the theme."

Laurie Garrett writes for the Council on Foreign Relations: "The call to reauthorize funding for PEPFAR at twice its current level, bringing it to $30 billion, for five years worth of HIV/AIDS programs in 15 countries sounds impressive, but it was included in the White House FY09 budget request, sent to Congress months ago. In both the House and Senate Democrats well surpassed the Bush administration request, counter-offering $50 billion. In effect, then, the president was asking Congress to reduce PEPFAR spending by $20 billion."

Reuters has reaction from presidential candidates. Said Barack Obama: "It was warmed over past State of the Union speeches. As I travel across the country, the American people want much, much more. They are anxious about their economic futures. They're seeing their homes foreclosed. They're seeing jobs contracting. They are concerned about being able to send their kids to college. What they want is leadership from the White House."

Service Employees International Union Secretary Treasurer Anna Burger said: "Given his dismal failure to address the concerns of working people in America, the best thing about the president's State of the Union address is that it is his last."

FISA Watch

Senate Democrats are standing up to Bush on warrantless wiretapping -- at least for now.

Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post: "The Senate yesterday left the fate of a new electronic surveillance law backed by the Bush administration up in the air, as a Republican-led effort to cut off a Democrat-led debate and proceed to a vote on the bill failed, mostly along party lines.

"Heightening the drama surrounding expiration of the existing surveillance law at midnight Thursday, the Senate also failed to approve a Democratic effort to extend the deadline by 30 days -- a move that the White House has opposed because the law already was extended last summer for a six-month run."

Torture Watch

Randall Mikkelsen writes for Reuters: "The United States used waterboarding in terrorism interrogations but no longer does, a former U.S. spy chief said in the Bush administration's clearest confirmation of the technique's use.

"U.S. officials have been reluctant to acknowledge the CIA's use of the simulated drowning technique, which human rights groups call an illegal form of torture.

"The remarks by former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte in an interview with National Journal magazine come as senators are expected on Wednesday to grill Attorney General Michael Mukasey on a promised review of the legality of interrogation methods."

Spencer Ackerman writes in the capital's newest publication, the Washington Independent: "[D]espite innumerable statements from the Bush administration about the value of the CIA's interrogation program, U.S. interrogators are still mostly in the dark--in the dark not only about al-Qaeda, but about how to effectively elicit vital national-security information from the detainees in its custody.

"Those with intimate knowledge of the program say that in many cases, U.S. interrogators haven't even been able to learn the basics about many of those they hold or have held, to say nothing of whatever crucial information they possess."

Karl Rove Watch

Arielle Levin Becker writes in the Hartford Courant: "Faced with outspoken opposition, Karl Rove won't be speaking at Choate Rosemary Hall's graduation after all.

"Instead, the former deputy chief of staff and senior adviser to President George W. Bush will visit the private school's Wallingford campus next month to speak with students.

"Headmaster Edward J. Shanahan announced the change of plans in an e-mail to the senior class Monday afternoon, quoting Rove as saying, 'I would not want 12 minutes of remarks to be used as an excuse by a small group to mar what should be a wonderful day of celebration for the members of the 2008 graduating class and their families, so I am delighted to instead accept Choate's invitation to speak on campus February 11.'"

In a Courant op-ed on Sunday, Shanahan had defended inviting Rove as graduation speaker: "[R]espect him or not, like him or not, he has been a central figure in the current government. He has also been a man committed to public service and the sacrifices associated with such service."

Bush's Bald Head Fetish

Here is a picture of Bush greeting Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) yesterday by rubbing his bald head.

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Cartoon Watch

Pat Oliphant, Stuart Carlson, Lalo Alcaraz and Rex Babin on the State of the Union.

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